emmaI read Emma for the first time about 20 years ago. I liked it very much, but it didn’t become a favorite. In fact, it took me 20 years to get around to it again, and I only returned to it because I had decided to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting this weekend. The theme of the weekend was “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.” I enjoyed the second reading of Emma very much, but attending the conference enhanced my appreciation of this complex book even more. Many of my musings here will build on insights I gained at the meeting.

Aside from Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Emma Woodhouse is perhaps Austen’s least liked heroine. And the reputation is, in some respects, deserved—more so than Fanny’s. Emma is an interfering know-if-all who talks Harriet Smith out of an advantageous marriage to a man she loves, throws her at a man who has no interest in her, and looks down on many of her neighbors for no good reason, even going so far as to openly insult one of them in public. However, Emma is young and she learns from her mistakes—even if it’s slow going at times.

One of the things that I found striking on this second reading is how isolated Emma is. Highbury is a tiny town, and Emma is at the top of the class structure there. Many of her actions could be her way of asserting and maintaining that status because it’s all she has. She befriends Harriet Smith because Harriet agrees with her in all things, something Jane Fairfax would be less likely to do. Harriet is not a threat in the way that Jane is. But, the truth is, Jane’s situation is far more precarious that Emma’s, which perhaps explains her clinging to an obviously terrible engagement with a cad like Frank Churchill.

In “Funny Lady: Dangerous Humor and Female Empowerment in Emma,” Mackenzie Broderick pointed out that Emma is really a black comedy. The prose may sparkle, but when you look at what’s actually happening, the story is pretty bleak. Jokes are how characters assert their power, but they also reveal people at their worst, as is seen in Emma’s insult to Miss Bates at Box Hill. But, as a woman, Emma knows what it is to be on the other side of the power structure, and so she understands her error and is horrified about it—and she didn’t need Knightley to point out how wrong she is. She knew it right away. But if she wasn’t able to see that and change her ways, Emma could easily turn into another Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a point made by Rebecca Posusta in a presentation titled “Who’s Afraid of Miss Bates?”

Indeed, many of Emma’s actions seem both more selfish and more understandable when you look at her prospects. She’s been confined to this tiny town, more so than she needs to be. In “The Post Office Is a Wonderful Establishment: Epistolary Novels, Private Space, and Postal Culture in Regency England,” L. Bao Bui, pointed out that she’s not been to Box Hill, only seven miles away; she hasn’t been to the shore; and despite being 16 miles from London and having a sister there, she does not go to London for the season. Frank Churchill could go to London ostensibly for a haircut. Emma has not been in society enough. She’s not had to pay deference to anyone, except her father. She clings to her status as Highbury’s alpha female because it’s all she has.

As for Emma’s father, I originally saw him as a comic figure, but the more I think about it, the more troubling I find him. Much of Emma’s plight can be blamed on his unwillingness to let her go. Look at the novel’s supposed happy ending, where Mr. Woodhouse consents to Emma’s marriage only because there have been robberies nearby and he decides they’ll be safer with Mr. Knightley in the house. The tone there is cheerful, but really? People criticize Mrs. Bennett all the time, but at least she’s looking out for her daughters. Aside from trying to control everyone else’s diet, Mr. Woodhouse looks out only for himself. The whole town walks on eggshells around him, and the more I think about it, the more unsettling it gets.

I know many people really love Mr. Knightley, but I continue to find him one of Austen’s blander heroes. On the first read, I was genuinely surprised when he and Emma ended up together. It hadn’t occurred to me, and I felt then (and to some degree still feel) that they’re together because there’s no one else around for either of them. And I’m a little unsettled by the fact that his primary role has been to chide and instruct her, even if he does so out of kindness and happens to be right. What does that say about feminine power in the world of the novel? Must a woman like Emma always be directed by a man?

Emma, more than Austen’s other novels, is about the heroine’s personal growth. Mackenzie Broderick noted in her presentation that it is Emma’s flaws that drive the plot of the novel. The marriage plot seems beside the point. And when I start trying to make the marriage plot essential, I don’t like the implications. Is Knightley a Petruchio to Emma’s Katherine? None of the sessions I attended at the AGM dug into their relationship, but there’s plenty there to think about.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 12 Comments

The Long Winter

long-winterWhen I looked over the Shelf Love archive, it surprised me to see that I have never reviewed one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels. Teresa and I reviewed Pioneer Girl, her (heavily annotated) autobiography, and I reviewed The Wilder Life, a memoir about being a “bonnethead” by Wendy McClure. But despite the fact that I have read all of the Little House books many, many times, and continue to read them as an adult, and read them to my children, I have never brought that reading here. I am currently having my 9-year-old son read The Long Winter aloud to me, and I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about it as a novel. It is a complex book in a number of ways.

The book opens in the hot prairie summer, with Laura bringing Pa a drink as he’s mowing hay. The two of them find a muskrat house in the slough, and when Pa sees how heavily it’s built, he forecasts a hard winter. Why does God protect the muskrats and not people? Laura wants to know. Because people are free, Pa tells her:

“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”

Animal instinct is the theme of the next part of the book, as when the first frost comes, every bird and animal — every bit of game that the Ingalls family requires for food — high-tails it south, presumably under the protection of God. Pa doesn’t like it; Ma, who is an extremely sane person and has no intuition whatsoever, is sure that everything is going to be just fine. Cue ominous music.

The next warning is one step closer from the animals to white men’s civilization (from the point of view of this book, of course.) An Indian walks into Mr. Harthorn’s grocery while Pa is buying a piece of salt pork (significantly because he could not shoot a rabbit), and warns the men that every twenty-one years, a terribly hard winter comes, and there will be blizzards for seven months. Here is the description of the Indian:

He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight. His arms were folded under a gray blanket, holding it wrapped around him. His head was shaved to a scalp-lock and an eagle’s feather stood up from it. His eyes were bright and sharp.

Here we have a combination of the dignity and wisdom that come with age (“Old! Old! I have seen!” says the Indian), intelligence (the sharp eyes) and a connection with the animal world, protected by God (the eagle feather.) For an analysis of the word “bright” in connection with the Indians’ eyes, I’ll refer you to Tom, who has talked at length about the Prairie Sublime.

I should mention briefly that this is an example of the phenomenon of the myth of the vanishing Indian, in which 19th-century people believed (or wanted to believe) that Indians were a doomed race, fated to disappear. Native people show up quite often in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s earlier books, and in significant numbers. Then, after the vivid moment when the Osage ride away in a long line, they are fewer. This, to my memory, is the last Indian we ever see in her books. After this, the presence of Native people is erased in favor of settler culture.

In any case, soon after this warning, the blizzards do indeed begin, and the narrative is no longer about animals or even Indians, but about the “free and independent” people of the town who are isolated by the snow. Of course Wilder stresses the Ingalls family’s isolation, and the mind-numbing hard work it takes to survive, but she shows several different ways people can react to the pressure. There’s Mr. Foster, who foolishly shoots at a herd of antelope when he’s out of range, and ruins the possibility of food for the town. There are the storekeepers, who raise prices on food and lumber so that only the very rich can afford them. There’s the stationmaster in Brookings, who gives up trying to send a train to the town. And then there are Cap Garland and Almanzo Wilder, who risk their lives in a breathtaking chapter by going in search of wheat they don’t know is even there, to save a starving community.

The end of the narrative arc, then, is about community — two young men who break through the isolation to prove that helping one another is the highest social order. When they bring the wheat back and Mr. Loftus (who fronted the money) proposes to sell the wheat for double what he paid for it because that’s “good business,” the town finally rebels; it’s against the communal spirit in which Cap and Almanzo made the trip. “Who says we made that trip for pay?” demands Almanzo. And Pa reminds Loftus, “Don’t forget every one of us is free and independent. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.” Freedom and independence won’t protect you from the blizzard as the muskrats’ instinct will, but they’ll protect you in a community.

The last chapter of the book, when the spring finally comes and the train full of groceries arrives, is a celebration of family life and of survival, but also of a specific kind of community. The Ingalls’ friends, the Boasts, arrive, who have been wintering on their claim. The people around this table, the people in this community, are people who reacted with wisdom and hard work to the stresses of the winter. (Mr. Foster and Mr. Loftus are not here, for instance.) The book ends with song, as all the books do. Pa’s frostbitten hands have healed enough to play the fiddle, and he brings it out. But this time it’s not a wistful lullaby. The theme of the book is that your fate is your own look-out, so the song accompanies it:

Then what is the use of repining/ For where there’s a will there’s a way/ And tomorrow the sun may be shining/ Although it is cloudy today.

(I’d write out all the verses, which strongly rebuke whiners and cowards, but you can go read them yourself.)

This book does not have a simple message. I’ve heard over and over again that Wilder writes about a single theme — that she’s racist, for instance, or that she writes about an independent family who won’t be “beholden” to others, or that she’s anti-statist — but these books are far more complex than that, both in terms of contradictory opinions within them and in terms of craftsmanship. There are individual chapters here that absolutely convey the terror of the blizzard, such as the one where Laura and Carrie are almost lost; there are others where Wilder conveys the numb, hungry boredom of waiting in the cold for a blizzard to be over, and the sense that the weather is almost personal. I appreciate the skill of the novelist, as much as I appreciate reading with my son.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Classics, Fiction | 6 Comments

We Live in Water

we-live-in-waterIn 2013, I read Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, a novel about a middle-class man in free-fall. That novel was satirical and insightful and interesting, it made me laugh and it made me think, but somehow I didn’t pick anything else up by Walter until my book club had me read his book of short stories, We Live in Water. This is a whole different thing, my friends.

The stories all take place right around where I live — Spokane, Washington, and the surrounding area. The farthest away he gets is Las Vegas, where a Spokane native has gone to look for his stepsister, who may have become a hooker. Mostly, though, it’s Spokane and the Idaho panhandle and Seattle and perhaps once or twice as far afield as Portland. It made these stories vivid for me; I knew the neighborhoods and streets, the pawn shops, the elementary schools, the faces of the people.

Walter’s protagonists — all men — are drowning. They are facing various kinds of misfortune: a busted economy, meth, a zombie plague, prison, a lifetime of bad decisions. In “Anything Helps,” Bit, a homeless man, “goes to cardboard” even though he hates to do it, because he needs twenty-eight dollars: it’s his son’s birthday, and he wants to buy the latest Harry Potter book for him. What that money signifies — to the people in the cars at the intersection, to him, to his son — is not a facile lesson. The title story involves a father whose mistakes cannot be made right, who has two minutes to tell his six-year-old son… what? What will carry him through his whole life? “We ain’t like fish, Michael,” he says. “You can do whatever you want.” But the message of the story — indeed, of the book — is that that isn’t true; we live in water, and we can only know what surrounds us. “Wheelbarrow Kings” is a genuinely funny story, about two tweakers pushing a gigantic television set through the streets of Spokane in order to pawn it. Several of the stories have that kind of dark humor, set in a context that makes you laugh but pokes a bruise. The last piece, more of an essay than a story, is “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington,” and I can’t do better than recommend you read it. I live here too!

In my book club, reactions to this book were very mixed. A lot of people found it too grim, and we got into a long discussion about homeless people and poverty. And it’s true that the characters populating this story don’t have much. Their trucks don’t start unless they’re parked on a hill; they hope they have enough for a frozen burrito at the 7-11; they don’t repair their houses. But that’s not Jess Walter’s point, to show us a group of those less fortunate than ourselves. He looks at individuals, one story at a time, because each story is worth while. He loves these guys, you can tell. He gives them huge dignity, no matter what kind of terrible failures they are. He looks at them with the eye of a cinematographer, with narrative and beauty and plot, and if there’s a lot of sadness here — a refusal to hand out easy redemption — there is also the fact that people are going down fighting.

I thought these stories were tremendous. The entire collection points out that we are living in a time where empathy is lacking; where we tend to blame the poor for their own poverty. The only way to change this is seeing and understanding one person at a time (one zombie at a time), one intersection at a time. Stories like this can help.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 12 Comments

Difficult Loves

difficult-lovesDifficult Loves is a collection of short stories by Italo Calvino, published quite late in his life (1984, only a year or so before his death) but written quite early indeed, most of them in the 1940s and ’50s. This means that if you read them expecting the style of the Calvino most of us know — the Calvino of If on a winter’s night a traveler, or Invisible Cities, or The Baron in the Trees — you’ll be surprised. These stories date from earlier than that; they are mostly from his Italian neorealist period, and as such are far more concrete in form and content than the novels I mention. As time goes by, however, that tone begins to shift. The collection has a lot to offer — not only in terms of watching Calvino find his way toward what would increasingly be his voice as an author, but on its own merits.

The collection is divided into four sections. The first section, “Riviera Stories,” is almost not stories at all, but sketches: slivers of life, detailed portraits of people in certain social situations. (Though even here a sense of the fabulous peeks out, as in “Adam, One Afternoon,” in which a young man named Libereso pursues a young woman named Maria-nunziata (the Madonna’s name) with gifts of snakes, toads, roaches, ants, fish, and slugs. Ah yes, I see you, Calvino.) The second section, “Wartime Stories,” ought to be more serious — peasants and partisans against German and Italian Fascists — and it mostly is. Here we see famine and rifles, a boy who can’t miss his shot, urgent messages crossing the country. But even here, “Animal Woods,” in which a German finds himself in a part of the forest where the Italians have hidden their livestock, has the clear sense of a fairy tale.

The third section, “Postwar Stories,” is the most difficult to engage with for me. These stories are a blend of the burlesque and the baroque, and sometimes the grotesque (any more -que words? Maybe opaque?) Yet some of them are wonderful, like “Theft in a Pastry Shop,” about men performing a heist from… well, a pastry shop. This story starts out as your basic noir crime fiction: the leader “walks along in silence, through streets as empty as dry rivers, with the moon following them along the tramlines.” They are silent, grim types with a job to do. But two pages in:

It was then that he became aware of the smell; he took a deep breath and up through his nostrils wafted an aroma of freshly baked cakes. It gave him a feeling of shy excitement, of remote tenderness, rather than of actual greed.

Oh, what a lot of cakes there must be in here, he thought. It was years since he had eaten a proper piece of cake, not since before the war perhaps. He decided to search around until he found them.

And the story takes a completely different turn, more Fellini than Chandler, with a last line you’ll never forget.

The last section, “Stories of Love and Loneliness,” is the closest we come to seeing Calvino’s mature preoccupations and style. Five of the eight stories are about the blurred line between art and life, truth and fiction. My own favorite was “Adventure of a Reader,” about a man who can’t focus on his fling with a real-life woman because his book is so good (we’ve all been there, right?) But perhaps the most perfect story was “Adventure of a Photographer,” about a man who ends by being unable to photograph anything but other photographs, and who destroys his love affair in the process. This story was full of wonderful, twisty paragraphs:

The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow… The minute you start saying of something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.

I may have given the impression that I think Calvino’s fantastic and fabulous writing (in the literal sense of those terms), his chameleon nature that never does the same thing twice, his deep originality of form, are somehow unserious. This is far from the case. I am not the sort of person who believes, grouchily, after a magic show, that I’ve been had. Rather, I admire the craft, and believe in the magic, and look to see how it was done, and ask to see it again, again, again. Difficult Loves comes close to a look behind the scenes, and for that I am grateful.

Translated, beautifully and variously, by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, and Peggy Wright.

Posted in Short Stories/Essays | 6 Comments

The Sandman: Overture

sandmanYears ago, my husband made a ceremony of giving me each of the oversize, deluxe editions of the Sandman comics for Christmas, one year after another. I’d spend Christmas afternoon lost in them, absorbed, with an incongruous background of choristers singing Noel. This year, for my birthday, I got another piece of the puzzle: the Overture to the whole story, the part that fits right before the Preludes and Nocturnes of the first volume.

In this story, Morpheus (Dream) learns two catastrophic pieces of information: an essential part of him has died, and the end of all things is near. After investigation, he discovers that all this is due to a mistake he made long ago: he failed to kill a star that had gone insane, and now that star’s insanity has spread to the rest of the universe like a kind of virus, putting everything in peril. Morpheus must try to fix his mistake, and along the way we encounter many familiar figures from the Sandman comics: the Corinthian, Pumpkinhead, the Endless (Dream’s siblings), and many more. And there are unfamiliar faces, too, such as Dream’s parents — who are not exactly what you might think.

Sandman: Overture is absolutely gorgeous, as you might expect if you’ve read any of these comics before. These were the books that taught me how to read a graphic novel — how to slow down and look at the art, how to recognize how the visual part of it interacts with the words. In this book, the art is hallucinatory and often surreal, and even the fonts are carefully chosen to tell us about the characters. There’s a spread with dozens of avatars of Morpheus that took me ten minutes to absorb. There are several layouts that unfold so the artist could have a bigger canvas. It’s an astonishing book. I adored it.

Still, I wouldn’t recommend this for someone who hasn’t read the other Sandman books. It’s assumed you know the characters; there are a lot of sly references and in-jokes for people who’ve known Sandman for 25 years. Start with Preludes and Nocturnes, and luxuriate in it all before going back to the Overture. But don’t miss this if you already know Sandman. It’s a gem.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Another Brooklyn

another-brooklynAugust, the narrator of Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Her father brought her and her brother there from Tennessee, leaving their mother as a memory whose coming August hoped for every day. Initially, they watched the other children of Brooklyn from their window, forbidden by their father to go outside. But eventually, they joined the neighborhood, and August found her girls. As an adult, she remembers:

Somehow, my brother and I grew up motherless yet halfway whole. My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it were a bag of stones we passed among us saying, Here. Help me carry this.

August has returned to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral when she encounters Sylvia for the first time in 20 years. The brief meeting takes August back to her childhood, and the book is her memory. She thinks of her friendship with the other girls, the loss of her mother, the counselor from the Nation of Islam who helped her voice her truth.

Jacqueline Woodson is known for her children’s and young adult books. She won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2014 for the wonderful memoir in verse, Brown Girl DreamingNow, with Another Brooklyn, she’s been longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction.

I’ve now read several of Woodson’s books and enjoyed them all, and this one is no exception. Her language is so evocative without being fussy. It’s crisp and clear with all the right details. This book, which is all about memory, has a dreamlike quality. There are gaps in August’s memory and moments that are more about feeling than about specific events—the feeling of being part of a group, the feeling of being alone, the feeling of looming maturity, the feeling of childlike fearlessness.

Woodson is especially deft here at capturing the tension of the period between childhood and adulthood where the girls feel prepared to take on the world but are unsure of what it means. Their world, as it turns out, is treacherous. They are brave, but there are internal and external dangers that could lead them to tragedy. Or they could just be nudged off the path their parents planned for them. They make their own choices, but they’re subject to others’ will. This period is neither wholly tragic nor wholly triumphant.

This is a short book, just under 100 pages. I read it in two sittings but could have finished it in one. It doesn’t dig in particularly deep; it’s more about images and impressions from the past than about analysis of it. It’s a lovely book and a sad one, sort of like life sometimes. And if you haven’t read Woodson, it’s a good place to start.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Fiction | 8 Comments


necessityJo Walton’s The Just City was one of my favorite books of last year. The sequel, The Philosopher Kings, was not quite as good, but it was interesting enough, and its game-changing ending left me curious about this, the final book in the trilogy. It turns out that although Necessity takes on some intriguing ideas, it doesn’t quite live up to its own potential. I found it a bit of a disappointment overall.

To discuss this book, I’m going to have to share some of the major surprises from the previous books, so if you’re planning on reading those and don’t want to be spoiled, you might want to skip the rest of this review. Just bear in mind that my disappointment in this book is fairly mild and does not diminish my enthusiasm for the Thessaly series as a whole and the first book in particular.

This book takes place 40 years after the events of the previous book. The Platonic cities have made themselves a home on their new planet, which they call Plato. Once at war, they now life peacefully, each city interpreting Plato in its own way, with citizens choosing to join the city that suits them best. Workers are treated as full citizens, and members of an alien species called the Saeli have joined in, establishing family units they call pods, where their three genders come together to produce and raise offspring.

The story of Necessity is told by multiple narrators. Pytheas returns, now in his immortal Apollo form, having come to the end of his mortal life as the novel begins. A second narrator, Jason, is a fisherman who presents a sort of outsider’s view. He’s not a total outsider, however, as his crew includes Marsilia, a granddaughter of Pytheas and member of the ruling council. She likes to fish with Jason as a break from her primary assigned work, and her narration provides the human insider’s view. Finally, there’s Crocus, the first Worker to achieve consciousness, who shares some of the history of the city and his own journey to consciousness.

As the book begins, Pytheas has just died and a human ship has made contact with the Platonians. What would these humans, who developed separately from the Platonians, be like? How would they react when finding other humans in outer space? Would they even remember Plato? Could they even find a shared language? Unfortunately, this storyline is relegated to the fringes of the novel, because Athene has gone missing, having decided to go and investigate the Chaos outside known time and space. She leaves a trail of clues for Apollo the others to follow, requiring them to go back in time. A Saeli god gets involved, and Hermes becomes important as well. Whatever they do as they move through time, they are bound by necessity to keep the present as they know it intact.

One of the reasons this book disappointed me is that I just don’t find the doings of the gods all that interesting, and their activities constituted the bulk of the story. Even then, the resolution to the problem involving Athene seemed too easy. And there’s a period in the book where the multiple timelines got, to me, unnecessarily confusing, which added to my frustration. I wanted to learn more about the meeting with the humans and about the challenges of merging human and alien cultures. All of these concepts are introduced, but they’re resolved in a few pages. The previous books were so rich in thought about how to balance different perspectives, but here it just seemed to happen without significant struggle.

And there were plenty of opportunities for struggle. Crocus, under the influence of Sokrates, whose return pleased me, is pressed to give more thought to the rights and independence of Workers. The Earth humans, however, have Workers who do not appear to have personhood rights. Crocus wonders if they have consciousness and what to do about it. But the problem is glossed over. Similarly, the differing conceptions of family among the Saeli presents a momentary conflict that is quickly dismissed. The dismissal is a lovely moment, and I was pleased to see it, but I’m not convinced that the practice of living it out would be so simple. Call me cynical, I guess.

It is possible that my personal tendency to cynicism is the barrier that kept me from loving this book. Apollo notes in his closing remarks that he ended this last book with hope. It is a hopeful book, rich in the idea that conflict can be overcome. But I don’t really buy it, and even if I did, I also recognize that conflict is often what drives good books. The lack of serious conflict here lowers the stakes too much, and so I wasn’t as engaged as I was in the previous books.

But, as I said before, this anti-climactic ending to the series does not diminish my appreciation for the first two books. And I’m not sorry to have read this because I was curious about how things turned out. But I wish the book lived up to its potential.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

The Underground Railroad

underground-railroadFor an embarrassingly long time, I thought the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad, at least partly underground. A secret train to freedom is an image than can easily catch a child’s imagination—especially when that child hasn’t been around trains enough to know that they’re noisy and difficult to hide. But the image is potent enough that Colson Whitehead uses it in his new novel about an enslaved woman named Cora who journeys north from Georgia, searching for freedom.

I was, at first, a little skeptical about Whitehead’s idea of making the Underground Railroad literal, rather than telling a story about the real thing. But this story isn’t a realistic one. Cora doesn’t literally journey north in the way an actual fleeing slave would. Instead, she is transported from one land to another, each with its own set of rules and hazards. The railroad is a portal. The novel isn’t about the railroad or even about Cora’s escape. To me, it seems to me about the many forms of enslavement and prejudice African Americans have experienced throughout U.S. history.

The book starts out feeling like a typical slave narrative, upsetting and cruel. Cora lives on a cotton plantation in Georgia and she experiences or witnesses many of the indignities and torments of slave life. Her mother escaped when Cora was a child, leaving her on her own. When a fellow slave, Caesar, suggests escape and tells her he knows someone who can put them on the underground railroad to the north, she agrees to go.

The first stop is South Carolina, where Cora and Caesar find something than looks a lot like freedom. They’re given paid employment and homes and freedom of movement. But the citizens of this seemingly free place are subject to medical tests, similar to the Tuskegee experiments. Later, in another place, Cora witnesses lynchings and genocide, all while hidden in a tiny attic space. Freedom, she learns, is complex:

Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. Here, she was fee of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

One of the things I like about Whitehead’s approach is that it doesn’t confine American racism to slavery days. Technically, the entirety of the novel is set before Emancipation, but the fantastic railroad makes Cora’s journey feel like time travel, and her pain continues across centuries. I think it’s easy for white Americans to write off racism as something from the past, from “back then,” and to believe that making laws against it makes it disappear.

When Cora is first placed on the train that takes her away from Georgia, she’s told, “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, all she can see is darkness. The book as a whole is not unremittingly grim, but it does make us see the darkness on the journey through our history.

I received an egalley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 19 Comments


austerlitzAusterlitz is the second novel I’ve read by W. G. Sebald. Like The Emigrants, it’s difficult to write about, partly because the genre is difficult to pin down. Is it documentary or fiction? Is it about architecture or is it a travelogue or is it a prose poem? It is also weirdly, circuitously moving; the sort of book (if this can be called a sort of book and not sui generis) that gets around behind you and kidnaps you into grief.

The book is about a strange, lonely man the author knows, named Austerlitz. They meet here and there, by chance, in various buildings in Europe where Austerlitz is collecting historical photographs of architecture and doing obscure research. We eavesdrop on their conversations — or, rather, on Austerlitz’s monologues. These are long discourses that begin with architecture and the way it represents tyranny or oppression (the description of the French Bibliotheque Nationale as a place that actively discourages readers is not just breathtaking, it’s spot-on.) These discussions become more intimate, and move on to the passage of time, the existential void of memory, and the deep grief of the shadow of the Holocaust.

We hear first about Austerlitz’s childhood in Wales, as the adopted son of a slightly-mad preacher. The vanished past is mysteriously present here, in the form of a town that was drowned at the bottom of a lake when a dam was completed:

At this one moment on the Vyrnwy dam when, intentionally or unintentionally, he allowed me a glimpse into his clerical heart, I felt for him so much that he, the righteous man, seemed to me like the only survivor of the deluge which had destroyed Llanwddyn, while I imagined all the others — his parents, his brothers and sisters, his relations, their neighbors, all the other villagers — still down in the depths, sitting in their houses and walking along the road, but unable to speak and with their eyes opened far too wide…. At night, before I fell asleep in my cold room, I often felt as if I too had been submerged in that dark water, and like the poor souls of Vrynwy must keep my eyes wide open to catch a faint glimmer of light far above me, and see the reflection, broken by ripples, of the stone tower standing in such fearsome isolation on the wooded bank.

Of course, by now we have begun to understand what it takes Austerlitz all his life and immeasurable despair to grasp: he is, indeed, submerged in dark water. He is carrying around a terrible secret, but for many years he doesn’t know what it is, because his memories are missing. He’s subject to illness, to fear, to blindness and despair, until chance cracks something open in his mind. Little by little, the memories return, and he discovers that indeed he is the only survivor of the deluge: he was part of the Kindertransport, sent to Wales as a tiny boy from Czechoslovakia for safety. Austerlitz the architectural research geek becomes a man obsessed with his parents, uncovering the history of the Jews of Prague, visiting Terezin, standing in the cemetery, hearing trains in a terrible new way.

The vision of the drowned Welsh village — the entire family, the neighbors, the whole village gone, unable to speak, but still witnessing — is typical of Sebald’s oblique approach to the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s not so much a way of talking about it as a way of making us think about how we can’t understand it. His style is dreamlike and a little formal, and there are profound silences in the text. (“That evening in the bar of the Great Eastern Hotel Austerlitz also told me that there was no wireless set or newspaper in the manse in Bala. I don’t know that Elias and his wife, Gwendolyn, ever mentioned the fighting on the continent of Europe, he said. I couldn’t imagine any world outside Wales.”) The gradual erosion of these silences — when the drowned dead begin to speak — is both triumph and deep sorrow.

I mentioned earlier that the genre of these books is difficult to pin down, in some ways. As in The Emigrants, this book contains poorly-reproduced black-and-white photographs and drawings that more or less accompany the text, which give it simultaneously a feeling of documentary evidence and of theater props: crumbly relics from some age long past. (Apparently Sebald himself called it “documentary fiction,” which, okay, that’s as good as I’m going to get.) As we move deeper into Austerlitz’s reminiscences, his sentences grow longer and more hypnotic, punctuated by commas. I realized at one point that I’d just read a sentence that was eight pages long. (Let that sink in for a moment.) Eff off, Hemingway nuts.

Austerlitz is a beautiful, slow, melancholy novel. It’s a fiction of memory and of time, complex without being severe. In a line near the end of the book, Austerlitz is describing the Jewish cemetery near his house in London:

In the bright spring light shining through the newly opened leaves of the lime trees you might have thought, Austerlitz told me, that you had entered a fairy tale which, like life itself, had grown older with the passing of time.

Reading Austerlitz is like entering this kind of fairy tale: bright and dark with hidden meaning, drawn from another culture and time, mysteriously grown old behind the poisonous briars. And beautiful, beautiful.

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Brandons

brandonsThis is the sixth of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, and it is just possible that it’s the most charming one yet. The novel centers around the unbelievably alluring (if rather scatterbrained) Mrs. Brandon and her two sensible children, Francis and Delia. To this contented family we add the high entertainment factor of Mrs. Brandon’s many admirers: among them, Mr. Miller, the vicar; and Hilary Grant, Mr. Miller’s pupil, who is Francis’s age. Hilary, in particular, has fallen violently in love with Mrs. Brandon the moment he saw her, and his earnest passion (complete with poetry) is extremely funny:

…his incoherent and jumbled wish had been entirely a prayer to be allowed to die some violent and heroic death while saving Mrs. Brandon from something or somebody, to have her holding his chill hand, and perhaps letting her cheek rest for a moment against his as his gallant spirit fled, all with a kind of unspoken understanding that he should not really be hurt and should somehow go on living very comfortably in spite of being heroically dead.

(To this sort of thing, Francis and Delia merely shake their heads. They are accustomed to their mother’s “hopeless cases.”)

Because Thirkell models herself on Trollope, though, behind this flamboyant background, a real love story is taking place. This one is between Mr. Miller and Miss Morris, companion to the now deceased Miss Brandon (an elderly relative of the Brandons.) The two had known each other forty years earlier, when Mr. Miller lived with Miss Morris’s father as he studied to become a priest. Ideological differences separated the two men, and Miss Morris found it difficult to forgive the young Mr. Miller for causing her father pain. But time has made it possible for these two to be gentle to each other, and to themselves, and watching them come back together is an absolute joy.

This isn’t a complicated book. There’s a death and an inheritance, people falling in and out of love, an engagement or two, and a glorious church fete (complete with Laura and Tony Morland, two of my favorite characters!) The entire thing is carried along on the river of Thirkell’s words, a sort of low, gentle, hilarious stream. If you’ve been feeling tired or stressed or worried, this is the sort of book that might really rest you, and I can’t say fairer than that. Thirkell wrote it in 1939, on the brink of war, knowing that this was the last peaceful English summer for some time, and it brims with contentment. Read it and garner some for yourself.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 14 Comments